Scores of players changed teams in free agency this spring, a few came out of retirement for another chance at riches and glory in a new city, and a handful more found themselves on new squads via trade. But while the majority of player movement this offseason involved role-playing vets and depth-providing backups, a few of these signings and trades (and in one case, a trade-then-sign) have the potential to make a major impact in 2017.
Here’s this year’s All-New-Team Team, the nine guys who will be the biggest difference-makers for their new clubs.
Quarterback: Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill’s season-ending ACL injury in early August threw a wrench into Miami’s plans to build on last season’s 10-6 record and return to the playoffs. But rather than handing the keys to the offense to backup Matt Moore—as they did late last season when Tannehill originally injured his ACL—head coach Adam Gase went another route. He managed to coax Cutler out of a cushy TV job with a one-year, $10 million deal. Gase has plenty of background info on his new signal-caller—the two worked together in the Bears’ offense in 2015—which should ease the transition. Cutler could even represent a chance for the Dolphins offense to take a big step forward.
The 34-year-old signal-caller was at his best under Gase in 2015 in Chicago: He completed 64.4 percent of his passes at 7.6 yards per attempt and finished with 3,659 passing yards, 21 touchdowns to 11 picks, and a career-best 92.3 passer rating in 15 starts. Those numbers are decent, but not eye-popping. Past the raw stats, the most impressive part of their season together was Gase’s ability to mitigate Cutler’s penchant toward self-destruction. The savvy play-caller got his typically erratic quarterback to show consistency, cut down on wild throws, and throw fewer picks. Gase did that, as ESPN’s Matt Bowen recently broke down, by giving Cutler plenty of easy-win passes to establish rhythm, a heavy dose of run-pass options to give him clear reads, a handful of well-schemed deep shots to get chunk yardage, and a few chances to get outside the pocket and throw on the move or tuck the ball and run.
Miami’s hope this year is that Gase can re-harness that efficient version of Cutler and put it to good use in a talent-packed offense. The Dolphins’ run game finished ninth in total yards and tied for eighth in yards per attempt behind a breakout Jay Ajayi performance last year. Cutler will also have jump-ball target DeVante Parker, reliable playmaker Jarvis Landry, and athletic seam-running tight end Julius Thomas to throw to in the red zone. Cutler has already generated plenty of hype in training camp. In his preseason Week 3 tune-up against the Eagles, he finished 5-of-8 for 105 yards and a touchdown with a 145.8 rating.
San Francisco quarterback Brian Hoyer is another guy that could jump-start his new offense, but the Dolphins are the only playoff team from last year that heads into 2017 with a new starter under center. If Cutler can avoid the bouts of turnover-heavy football that defined his time in Chicago, Miami has a good chance to get back to the postseason.
Running Back: Marshawn Lynch, Raiders
For as good (and expensive) as the Raiders offensive line is (they gave up fewer pressures than any other club in 2016), they weren’t as physically dominant in the run game as you’d expect. Oakland ranked 19th in yards before contact per rush attempt (1.56) and, per Football Outsiders, struggled getting much push in short-yardage situations and converted on third-and-short and fourth-and-short runs just 59 percent of the time (23rd).
That’s where Marshawn Lynch, the best tackle-breaking back of his generation, comes in, and the 31-year-old Oakland native gives the Raiders exactly the identity fans expect from the Silver and Black. He just embodies toughness. Oakland may have had a high-scoring offense last year (they finished seventh in the league with 26 points per game), but they relied heavily on Derek Carr’s arm, and the offense fell apart after he got hurt. Oakland has Carr’s arm back, and now they have Lynch, too. His ability to elude tacklers, get tough yards on third and fourth downs, and provide tenacity and resiliency to rally his teammates will make the Raiders a lot more difficult to beat.
DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard will figure into the run game equation as well. Lynch will likely fill in the gap left by Latavius Murray, who signed with Minnesota. Murray brought in 195 carries for Oakland, and Lynch will likely inherit most of those runs. Lynch is bound to do more with them, too.
Wide Receiver: Terrelle Pryor, Redskins
Pryor was one of biggest success stories in the NFL last year. He made the switch from quarterback to receiver (and back, for a little bit) before breaking out as a playmaker and no. 1 target for the Browns with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four scores. The guy that once told then-Seahawks reporter Jerry Brewer that he would never consider a full-time position change because he didn’t “know how to catch” is now routinely making plays like this in Redskins camp:
I'm telling y'all. Defenses aren't ready for Pryor pic.twitter.com/09BwSDWTiP— CarolB (@FixOurBullpen) August 1, 2017
The 6-foot-4 240-pounder ran a 4.38 at his pro day back in 2011, and can win in one-on-one situations in the red zone. He will be a breakaway downfield deep threat and a big target over the middle on third down for quarterback Kirk Cousins. When DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon signed in Tampa Bay and San Francisco, respectively, 214 targets from last year’s offense walked out the door, so Pryor’s sure to see a good portion of that number come his way this year. Jamison Crowder’s star is on the rise, so Pryor won’t have to do it all himself—but Cousins is going to lean heavily on him, and the fifth-year pro with size XXXXL gloves has the talent, speed, and, yes, the hands to turn those opportunities into major production.
Tight End: Martellus Bennett, Green Bay Packers
The Packers offense was already dynamic without Bennett, but with him, they’re one of the league’s scariest matchup nightmares. On any given snap, this offense can simultaneously field a receiver that can play running back (Randall Cobb), a running back that can play receiver (Ty Montgomery), and Bennett, a tight end that can both set up on the line and run block or flex out and run routes on the wing. Oh, and Jordy Nelson. And Davante Adams. And they’re all catching passes from the most terrifying quarterback on earth (Aaron Rodgers). I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of this type of stuff out of Green Bay this year:
The versatility that Bennett brings as both a blocker in the run game and a sure-handed target in the air attack should act as a force multiplier for players like Cobb and Montgomery, and make both of them more dangerous in the run-pass options the Packers employ as well. With Bennett on the field, the Green Bay offense should be able to seamlessly switch between run and pass plays without the need to huddle or substitute.
The 30-year-old playmaker finished third in DYAR (total value) and fourth in DVOA (value per play) among tight ends last year, per Football Outsiders, leading the position (minimum 20 targets) with an 83 percent catch rate. Expect him to get plenty of targets in this Packers offense, especially in the red zone, where he can exploit mismatches against heavy-footed linebackers.
Offensive Lineman: Andrew Whitworth, Rams
It might have seemed a bit strange to see a young, rebuilding team like the Rams go out and give a 35-year-old left tackle a three-year, $33.75 million deal in free agency, but for quarterback Jared Goff—whose blind side Whitworth will be protecting—there’s no time like the present. Goff may not be long for this league if he plays anywhere near as poorly as he did last year, and finding a way to ease the pressure he faces is paramount for a Los Angeles team trying to salvage what’s left of the young passer’s confidence. And in Whitworth, they got one of the league’s best pass-protecting offensive linemen.
Goff faced pressure on an NFL-high 40.4 percent of his dropbacks last year, per the Football Outsiders Almanac, and, let’s just say, he did not fare well in those situations. That’s being charitable. The Rams offense registered an astounding negative-126.5 percent DVOA when Goff faced pressure, by far the worst in the NFL—worse than the Texans offense when Brock Osweiler faced pressure, for instance (negative-100.6 percent). For reference, only a handful of pass offenses will dip below negative-90 percent DVOA when under pressure each year, so that type of suckatude in the face of oncoming pass rushers is not tenable. The Rams had to get someone to boost their offensive line, even if it meant overpaying for a 35-year-old.
Of course, the Rams (with Goff playing) registered a league-worst (also by a long shot) negative-45.2 percent DVOA when Goff wasn’t pressured, so Whitworth’s signing doesn’t solve everything: the young signal-caller simply must improve in all areas. But giving their quarterback a few more beats in which to step up and throw was still the most important thing the Rams could’ve hoped to do this offseason. Whitworth could be integral in Goff’s development.
Defensive Lineman: Calais Campbell, Jaguars
An already good Jags defense (which ranked 12th in DVOA) added one of the game’s best defensive linemen by signing Campbell in March. At 6-foot-8 and 282 pounds, the former Cardinal is an impact player both against the run and the pass—and when he’s not beating the guy in front of him, he’s occupying two gaps or two blockers and freeing up teammates to win one-on-one battles.
Campbell was all over the place for Arizona last year; per the Football Outsiders Almanac, he registered 23 quarterback knockdowns (sacks plus hits, ranked fifth among interior defenders), a team-high 31 quarterback hurries (tied for 20th in the NFL), and 20 defeats (fourth). Pairing Campbell with Malik Jackson on the Jaguars defensive line just doesn’t seem fair.
Linebacker: Jabaal Sheard, Colts
It’s a transition year for the Colts, and major changes on the defensive side of the ball portend some growing pains in 2017. Add in the fact that Vontae Davis is now out indefinitely with a major groin injury, and it could be tough sledding early on for that group.
But the best cure for all defensive woes is almost always a good pass rush, and that’s why former Patriot Jabaal Sheard could be the Colts’ most important offseason addition. Sheard’s tenure in New England was a strange one—he started out strong, recording eight sacks in 2015, but despite a quick start last year with three sacks in the first four games, his playing time faded as the year went on. Still, he was disruptive overall for the Pats, registering six sacks, six quarterback hits, and 31 hurries on 380 pass-rush snaps on the year (including playoffs) by Pro Football Focus’ charting. In a featured role in Indianapolis’s scheme, expect Sheard to return to that eight-sack range.
Cornerback: A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags inked Bouye, Pro Football Focus’ second-ranked cornerback last year (behind only Denver’s Chris Harris Jr.), to a five-year, $67 million deal in March. And by pairing him with second-year standout Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville is poised to field one of the best cornerback tandems in the league.
Bouye was a late bloomer in Houston—he didn’t become a full-time starter until last year, his fourth in the league—but he was dominant once given the opportunity for major snaps. He notched 22 passes defended, 53 solo tackles, a sack, and three picks, while surrendering a 49.4 percent catch rate and an opposing passer rating of just 61.0 (including playoffs). And while the interception production wasn’t where you’d hope for a big-money corner, his presence on the outside (along with Ramsey) could indirectly lead to an uptick in turnover production for the Jaguars defense (which finished tied for 30th with 13 forced turnovers last year and a league-worst seven picks). With Bouye and Ramsey shutting down the sidelines (and in many cases, teams’ top two receiving threats), opposing quarterbacks will be forced to look more often to the crowded middle of the field—where safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church will hope to capitalize.
Bouye’s versatility makes him an extremely valuable addition to the Jaguars defense—he can play outside, in the slot, up in press, or in zones. There’s still not much hope on the offensive side of the ball in Jacksonville, but this defense has all the pieces to make a jump to elite status in 2017.
Safety: Tony Jefferson, Ravens
While Bouye and Ramsey are busy all but shutting down the sidelines in Jacksonville’s scheme, newly minted Ravens safety Tony Jefferson will be pairing with Eric Weddle to shut down most of the middle of the field in Baltimore’s defense. That area often sees three or four wideouts coming downfield. Linebackers often must decide between sticking with the deep route or jumping the shallow one, which makes non-verbal communication between defenders extremely important. When one guy takes one route, the guys behind or next to him must adjust, and vice versa, and this all happens very quickly after the snap. And for what it’s worth, Weddle thinks that Jefferson is already showing that chemistry.
“No disrespect to any of the guys I’ve played with, but it’s nice not to have to explain why I do certain things or why I’m doing this in this coverage,” Weddle told The Baltimore Sun. “From day one, [Jefferson] already had a feel for how I play and how to work off me. … It frees me up a lot more mentally. I don’t have to tell him after each play why I did this or, before the snap, let’s do this. He already knows. That is just light years ahead of most guys I’ve played with … he’s just on another level.”
That is, as they say on Twitter, big if true. Jefferson’s best as a run defender in the box, but he improved significantly in coverage last year—enough that the Ravens should feel comfortable playing Weddle and him interchangeably deep or near the line of scrimmage. A strong rapport is already developing between the two players. Jefferson could make an already great defense an even better one in 2017.